FILM / Lost in the crush, scared senseless

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The Independent Culture
In Alison Maclean's Crush (15), a New Zealand literary critic (Donogh Rees) compares her country to a prelapsarian Eden, and the national psyche to a search for the hidden snake. And the story is bookended in fact by two spectacular falls from grace. At the beginning a careless driver (Marcia Gay Harden) plunges her car off the road in a crash that leaves Rees severely injured. At the end, one of the main characters is pushed off a hill face. In between the loss of innocence is speedy and complete: Harden launches into an affair with a writer, while his young, boyish daughter, feeling resentful, starts visiting Rees in hospital to stoke her fury at Harden, the ambiguous, amoral American friend (unsurprisingly, Wim Wenders' film was an influence). But this initially unlikeable figure becomes the emotional centre of the story, and perhaps its most honest character.

Crush played in competition at Cannes last year and drew the same stridently mixed response as Jane Campion's Sweetie a few years earlier. That's not by chance: both films are by first-time directors casting a female, Antipodean eye on the world - and what that eye sees turns out to be, in each case, an intense psychodrama laced with mordant comedy. Crush is a far less confident film than Campion's, but it has strong, unsettling performances, especially from Hayden and Rees; striking imagery, from the opening shot, a close-up of bubbling red mud (the film is set in the thermal springs resort of Rotorua, overcast, deserted and out of season); and many oblique insights.

Subtlety is not the watchword of Candyman (18), touted by its makers as a classic horror film for the Nineties. In fact the charismatic serial killer with the slasher hand and perversely violent history conveys a distinct sense of deja vu. Yes, this is A Nightmare on Elm Street transposed from whitebread small-town suburb to black inner-city ghetto. The story's even underpinned by similar pseudo-intellectual guff. In Nightmare, Freddie Krueger was the creature of our subconscious; Candyman springs from modern urban myth.

Virginia Madsen plays a graduate student preparing a doctoral thesis on this very theme. She hears the legend of the Candyman from a cleaning lady, and ventures forth in quest of material into the city's toughest, most decrepit housing project. Candyman, she learns, was the child of slaves and an artist who fell in love and impregnated the white woman he was painting. Thereupon her father exacted a horrible revenge involving a swarm of killer bees. Today Candyman's dark shade stalks the project wasting anyone who pronounces his name.

Filmed forcefully by Bernard Rose (it's certainly an improvement on both his previous efforts, Paperhouse and Chicago Joe and the Showgirl), the story has been relocated to Chicago from Liverpool, the setting for Clive Barker's source novel, The Forbidden. The change of setting has several unfortunate consequences. It makes a nonsense of the massive fire at the film's climax, a Guy Fawkes' bonfire in the original, but here for no good reason at all.

And the film also overlays the book's original class conflict, with another, more worrying, racial one. Madsen is middle-class and white, the Candyman poor and black. His attacks on her, filmed as a kind of ravishment or seduction - a rape scenario that makes the black-white tensions, fears and sexual fantasies in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever look all sweetness and light by comparison (and despite Rose's glib disclaimer on these pages last week, has attracted widespread criticism from blacks in America). Bitter stuff.

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